By David Zakhodin
The last time we laid eyes on Roland Garros, we watched an elated Novak Djokovic drawing a heart and rolling around in the clay as he celebrated finally winning the Career Grand Slam. Twelve months later, we arrive at the same tournament with even more excitement and uncertainty surrounding the men’s field. Even though Rafa Nadal has looked as unstoppable as ever during the spring clay court circuit, I would not say he is as highly favored to win this rendition of Roland Garros as he has been in several previous contests. Therefore, we have a lot to look forward to in the coming fortnight of tennis and below are various factors viewers should consider when watching the year’s second Grand Slam.
The higher ups at Tennis Channel must have read my Make The French Open Great Again piece last year because they took decisive action and bought full live rights to cover the tournament.
Fortunately for them, the bar for making things great again has been set extremely low in 2017. While I am skeptical about how well Tennis Channel will perform in its inaugural first ball to last ball coverage of a Slam, I at least have to applaud their graphics team for making a much more viewer-friendly and clean scoreboard for the tournament. If they could fix the problem on their bottom line feed where it says that all non-seeded players are qualifiers, then they would be golden from a logistical standpoint. I think as long as Tennis Channel can minimize the number of collective matches ruined by Mary Carrillo, we won’t have too big of a problem with the commentary during Roland Garros. What probably will be a big problem is the fact that they’re in full control of which matches they show on the actual channel and which matches are on the online paid Tennis Channel Plus service. This has bad production and decision-making written all over it because I have no intention of going to buytcplus.com to pay for this package. ESPN3, where are you when we need you?? My last request is to invest a little more money in your microphones, Tennis Channel. The volume discrepancy between the striking of the ball and the crowd reaction between an ESPN broadcast and a Tennis Channel broadcast is shockingly noticeable. If Tennis Channel wants to back up their decision to spend big to cover this event fully, they better jack up the energy level and create excitement from the actual tennis and not just the cliché Imagine Dragons themed intro featuring players who don’t speak French trying to say stuff in French.
The French Federation of Tennis
Similar to its American television partner, the French Federation of Tennis (FFT) also took some steps in response to the issues brought up in my piece on the inadequacy of French Open facilities as they pertain to a Grand Slam level event. First and foremost, they cut off the head of the snake and sacked the ever-mediocre Jean Gachassin as President and replaced him with the much more proactive Bernard Giudicelli. The only thing Gachassin was good for was his constant head-scratching as Jo-Wilfried Tsonga choked away chances to make French Open finals and his commitment to kissing every French Open champion on that overpriced postmodern podium. On the other hand, Giudicelli already won me over by naming two of my tennis coaches’ dad as the head of FFT Player Development. Moreover, he finally announced that Roland Garros would at least make an attempt to innovate in the way the other majors have done by creating a four-year plan for an expansion of the grounds and the construction of a roof above Court Philippe Chatrier.
To speak to more recent events, it appears that despite its goals for progress, the French Open is still struggling to get the little things right. During Sunday’s match on Chatrier between Frenchmen Lucas Pouille and Julien Benneteau, a fan appeared to have collapsed in the stands due to the Parisian heat. A solid four minutes passed as Pouille and Benneteau sat in boredom, chair umpire Kader Nouni put his headphones in, and Justin Gimelstob had a meltdown about the need for medical attention. If I wrote about how long it took for French security to tackle various protesters and clowns on Chatrier, it took way longer for them to get medical attention to this poor person. In addition to inadequately responding to extenuating circumstances in the crowd, the organization still has no solution for extenuating circumstances in nature. Every night we see so much unnecessary drama as it relates to the setting sun and its ability to disrupt play and change the course of pivotal four or five set matches. Moreover, the organizers are so weary of this issue that they purposely schedule only four matches per day on each court so as to avoid the problem at all costs and implement court changes later in the day if time allows. Here’s my message to the FFT: there are two big tournaments preceding the French Open in the calendar in Madrid and Rome. These events, in what is hardly considered as rocket science, have found a way to maintain their identity as daytime tournaments while setting up lights on each court in order to avoid issues with scheduling and sell more tickets. Would it be so hard for the French Open to do the same as part of their renovation? I won’t Trust The Process unless they do.
Right on cue with daylight issues, the first day of Roland Garros was, in a word, underwhelming. When I think about the other three Slams, there’s always something to get excited about even on the first day when most matches are lopsided. In Australia, you know there’s bound to be a five-set battle brewing on an outside court late into the night featuring an Aussie wild card. At Wimbledon, everyone loves the tradition of the defending champion opening play on Centre Court. And the U.S. Open and its night session represent the most electric stage in all of tennis. Aside from this great hustle point between Tanking Tomic and Tenacious Thiem, there was not a whole lot to get fired up about on Day 1 of Roland Garros.
Grigor Dimitrov won his first Roland Garros match in four years. I would say there’s a 50/50 chance he and his coach Danny Vallverdu went out to celebrate at the Moulin Rouge last night. And Stevie Johnson and his lack of focus as the sun was setting confirmed my long-term theory that even when Americans do play well on the red clay, they can never close out their first round opponents in straight sets. If anything, the most dramatic aspect of the day was the three-hour long debacle between Pouille and Benneteau on Chatrier. I would like to personally apologize for commending Pouille’s mental game in my previous column when it certainly looked like he was on the brink of losing to the cockiest guy on the tour to never have won a singles title. I’m sorry but if you’re a Next Gen star, you shouldn’t be going 6-4 in the fifth with a washed up 35-year-old whose career highlight is having match point at Wimbledon against Roger Federer. Some people love that the French Open lasts an extra day with play on this opening Sunday; I personally wish the first round were condensed to two days. And finally, leave it to the FFT to space the first round out to three days and still find a way to have Rafa play his opening match on Court Suzanne Lenglen. This is arguably more disrespectful than when Wimbledon put Sampras on the old Graveyard Court after he had won the thing seven times.
The Draw and the Dissolution of a Dream Final
France had two jobs in the month of May: don’t elect Marine Le Pen and make sure Rafa and Novak are slated to play in the final of Roland Garros. In the second one, it failed miserably. We all sat hoping for Rafa to have to face Superteam Djokovic/Agassi in the final, but alas we will have to settle for a semifinal. I personally would have fully advocated the organizers rigging the tournament to put them on opposite sides of the draw, but having Stan Wawrinka lurking on the other side is surely a good consolation prize. Having won last week in Geneva, Stan looks like he might be in the mood to embark on a deep run at Roland Garros. When we remember his legacy, we won’t think of him as one of the greats because of his inability to become world number one. However, he is the ideal tennis kryptonite. In each of his three Grand Slam victories, he has prevented history from being made. Whether it be stopping Rafa from his first crack at number 15, delaying Novak’s Career Grand Slam, or preventing Novak from moving into sole possession of fourth on the all-time Grand Slam list, Stan has embraced the role of spoiler. With him being in the considerably weaker top half of the draw, I think it is safe to say we want him in the final. In that same half of the draw, I would love to see the not-so-noble Sir Andy Murray square off against Juan Martin Del Potro in the third round. In what could be a third consecutive big stage match (following Rio Olympics and Davis Cup semis), these two are bound to go the distance if you consider both their potential to go deep in the tournament as well as their potential to lose early considering their recently inconsistent play. It may not get as much hype as the third consecutive NBA Finals matchup, but these heavyweights may be in for another epic showdown. Hopefully the tournament has the brains to put the match on Chatrier.
At the bottom of the draw, it feels like it’s Rafa, Novak, Thiem, and then everybody else. Our dark horse pick in David Goffin may have something to say about that in a potential Round of 16 bout with Thiem, but the two favorites both have pretty solid draws. The fourth quarterfinal spot on that side will probably come down to Milos “I Wear New Balance” Raonic, Lake Forest, Illinois hometown hero Pablo Carreno Busta, and Grigor Dimitrov, if he ever finds his way back from the cabaret. But for whichever one of those guys reaches the quarters, it’ll be lights out against Rafa. I’m inclined to say that the other section might feature a grind between Novak and Thiem, but history from Rome two weeks ago and last year’s French shows that Novak should win comfortably to create the dream semifinal. It’s very ironic that the tournament was unable to manufacture a Rafa – Novak final but yet conveniently came up with a likely Gasquet – Monfils third round matchup to ensure one of the two struggling Frenchmen would at least reach the top 16. This isn’t World Cup level conspiracy theory quite yet, but I’d be willing to bet the PR department will have its hands full once this piece goes viral.
In any case, I give Novak about a 30% chance to stop Rafa from getting one step closer to history. If Novak had spent more time on the tennis court and less time doing this, maybe that number would have been 40%.
And if he hadn’t spent valuable practice time ahead of Roland Garros filming the “I Am the New Crocodile” Lacoste commercial that Tennis Channel has decided to air during every commercial break, maybe his chances would be 50% (he looks pretty fresh in Lacoste, though). All jokes aside, this match is another opportunity for Rafa to distance himself from Novak in the greatest of all time conversation. Obviously, we know that title belongs to the man who is on the sidelines for this year’s Roland Garros, but this semifinal match will create a big momentum swing in favor of the victor. The best part, however, is that Stan might be very well waiting to take all of it away two days after. Moreover, I would dare say that a hot and confident Stan might be a bigger threat to Rafa on clay than the recently unpredictable Novak. Hence, not having the dream final might not be as bad of an outcome as we originally thought. The Swiss Maestro may not be making the trip over to Paris to disrupt Rafa or Novak’s date with destiny, but the Swiss Kryptonite is certainly lurking with his finger pointing at his temple as he pursues a fourth Major title.
After looking at the draw, it’s safe to say this year’s Roland Garros is bound to produce some figurative fireworks. Hopefully, they won’t offend the Bois de Boulogne residents who stalled attempted renovation efforts for over half a decade and unequivocally made this the inferior of the four Majors. Nonetheless, as is the norm, history will be made by whomever raises the Coupe des Mousquetaires in a couple Sunday’s. The tournament, despite its certain shortcomings, has a rich tradition of producing memories that are deeply etched in the annals of tennis glory. Without a doubt, the 2017 edition will only add to the legendary tournament that is Roland Garros.